College mourns death of Professor William DeWitt ’61

On Friday, Bill DeWitt ’61, professor of biology, died suddenly in his home in Williamstown. President Falk sent an all-campus e-mail on Saturday to inform the College of DeWitt’s sad and sudden passing. “It’s hard to imagine his not being among us,” Falk said. DeWitt is survived by his wife and two children. An informal gathering was held in Griffin 3 on Sunday for members of the community who wished to attend.

An alumnus of the College from the Class of 1961, DeWitt returned to teach at the College in 1967 as a professor of biology. He received his Ph. D in biology from Princeton and was a post-doctorate fellow at MIT. He conducted research on the antibiotic properties of amphibian skin and on optimizing cyanobacteria for hydrogen production, but as his friend and colleague Hank Art, professor of environmental studies and biology, explained, “[Dewitt’s] great love was teaching.” DeWitt spent much of his career at the College developing the curriculum of the biology department, specifically designing the curriculum for “Biology 101,” creating biology courses for non-majors and teaching the popular senior capstone primary literature courses.

“He was, by far, one of the most intelligent professors I have ever had,” Emma Rouse ’14, a student close to DeWitt, said. “He was challenging in classes, and although he expected a lot from his students, he was always fair and always willing to explain and answer questions. I am a better biology student because of Professor DeWitt, and I’m sure I am not the only one who can say that.”

“From his days here as a student over 50 years ago and through his years on the faculty, [DeWitt] witnessed many transformations at Williams, and so he had a perspective on this institution that is rather rare,” Professor of Biology Dan Lynch said. “He took pride in being very current with the science he taught in his classes, and he continuously worked to develop different methods and formats for courses in an effort to foster intellectual growth. He was always interested in the ‘quality of mind’ exhibited by his students, rather than GPA. He exhibited an exceptional skill in mentoring and advising both students and faculty.”

“[DeWitt] was the most gifted teacher in the department,” Art said. “And he accomplished that through a very simple teaching style. It was not adorned with PowerPoints or videos. He did great things with just a piece of chalk and a blackboard.”

According to Professor of Biology Nancy Roseman, DeWitt loved to continue learning about biology. “Like many of his students, there is no one I learned more from than Bill [DeWitt],” she said. “He was one of the wisest human beings I have ever known. He was a master teacher who would spend months becoming expert in an area of biology he knew nothing about. For him, that was simply a joy to do, given how much he loved to learn and how much he loved to share his wonder about biology with his students.”

“His electric intellectual energy and his vivid classroom presence had a profound effect on countless generations of Williams students,” Peter Murphy, dean of faculty, said. “For more than 40 years, he remained excited about teaching both introductory and advanced classes, and for more than 40 years, he remained an absolutely up-to-date scientist. He was central to the modern teaching of biology at the College.”

While DeWitt was known for his intelligence and his passion for teaching, he was also known for his eccentric personality and quirky wit. “I’ve been here 19 years, and Bill DeWitt has been a huge part of my professional life,” Professor of Biology Wendy Raymond said. “Those years were bracketed by his appearance in his cardboard box virus costume. His first appearance was when I was teaching genetics in my first year at Williams. In walked a cardboard T2 virus with a pair of male athletic legs sticking out of the bottom of the box. I thought it was a student! Everyone was rolling around the floor laughing. I didn’t realize until days later that it had been [DeWitt]. And then just a couple weeks ago, we had a pizza lunch with prospective and current biology students, where he showed up as a virus, this time labeled ‘T cell.’ It really illustrates that he had a great sense of humor and that he loved to lighten things up when he could.”

“Professor DeWitt was the stuff of legends,” Kate Dusenbury ’13 said. “There’s the tale that he was the only person to have ever graduated from Williams with a 4.33 GPA, and of course, there are the stories about the gang he was in (and possibly led) growing up. What made his stories so great, though, was not simply that he would often interrupt his lecture to tell them, but that you could tell by the twinkle in his eye that they were true and that he was having just as much fun, if not more, sharing them as you were listening.”

“He was a spitfire of a man, outrageously intelligent, a life-changing professor and he will be sorely missed,” Rouse said. “I express my condolences to his family, friends, colleagues and students.”